Big March 2022 – Part I – Setting the Stage -Project Management

When I have tried to describe my work/professional life to people, I usually start with acknowledging that I was once an attorney and then immediately add that I escaped and am fully recovered, reformed, rehumanized or some other deflection that acknowledges that that profession is not universally adored. Eventually, though, I get around to describing what I have done as being project management although never in the certified or professional sense of that term. I found the following definition of project management online: “Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters. Project management has final deliverables that are constrained to a finite timescale and budget.” I was always happiest and most productive when I could fully immerse myself in that kind of application – with stated goals/objectives and deliverables at least broadly speaking.

Such has been the case with my birding life as well, always most enjoyable when there was a project – a goal which required the application of skills and knowledge – identification, observation, communication, logistics, physical and emotional engagement and application of a process that I had developed without planning to do so and which evolved as the projects changed as did my own skills and experience. Listing and chasing have been major parts of my birding life bringing focus and resolve to my activity, maintaining my engagement and bringing joy despite occasional failings and disappointment. Whether it was finding a specific bird, adding to a state or ABA life list or targeting a defined number of species for a particular time period – day, month, year – in truth most of my birding has been managing a birding project rather than just birding for birding’s sake. While completing the project has been important and satisfying, I think what is more valuable and important is the immersion in the process, driven by the objective, and the discovery of people, places and ideas along the way. Birding has been the instrument and having a project has provided the structure for using the instrument to maximize my benefits.

In January 2018 my project was a Big Month in Washington trying to find at least 200 species in the state during that month. I ended up with 207 species, wrote a lot of blog posts about the experience (8) and had a good time. The last blog post was a reflection of the experience and somewhat like this post will be, was a reflection on me and my birding. In that post, I wrote: “As I have written before, these kinds of challenges provide a framework for my birding.  Maybe it would be better to just go out and enjoy birds and birding wherever without any specific plan or goal – just be in and enjoy the moment.  I have found that at least for me, having a target, a plan, a goal, a “project” brings me that same “in the moment” feeling but with some structure that not only does not get in the way but actually enhances each moment – whether there is a hit or a miss.  There is just a heightened awareness that is consuming and enjoyable.” Perhaps I had not specifically acknowledged the role that project management has always played in my life, but the gist of it was there.

As 2022 arrived, I noted that I had finished all the little to do list projects at home. I was not going to do another Big Year in Washington, and I was feeling the need for another birding project. One nice thing about projects is that they often lead to other projects – either another assignment in my working life, or another challenge, goal or objective in my birding one. I considered redoing my 50/50/50 Adventure (a really big project) but this time doing all 50 states in a single year. Cindy and I had scheduled a trip to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina for January. That could have provided a good start on that project, but after yet another surge in Covid cases in those states, we canceled that trip. Redoing 50/50/50 would mean a commitment of at least 100 to 125 days. Losing that January start really did not leave enough time for me to undertake that travel and also do the travel that Cindy and I planned/hoped for in 2022 making up for other trips that had been canceled in 2020 and 2021. But I still needed a project. Confronting that same challenge in 2021, I reminded myself that I had successfully managed the “Big January” three years earlier, why not try for a “Big February” – looking for for 200 species in Washington February 2021. I did not make it by much but did end February 2021 with 202 species (see https://blairbirding.com/2021/03/08/the-big-month-ends-ok-but-only-ok/ and earlier posts). Poring over my Ebird statistics, I found that without specifically trying to do so, I had seen more than 200 species species in Washington in April in 2015 (201 species) and also in May 2013 (214 species). Why not fill in the gap for March with a Big March 2022? And beyond that, if I could live long enough, how about doing a Big Month for every month of the year? If this one worked, it would be 5 down and 7 to go – but first there was March.

Without any specific goal, I had seen 177 species in Washington in 2014. It shouldn’t be hard to add 23 more species if that was the project to be managed, right? Looking at that 2014 list, the only “tough” species were GYRFALCON and TUFTED DUCK. Everything else seemed normal and simply a matter of covering the right places at the right time. I next looked at Ebird reports for Washington in March in recent years. There were some rarities that could not be counted on and inevitably there are some misses, but that research (an essential part of every project management) indicated that more than 260 species had been seen in March in the past few years and that at least 230 species were reasonably somewhat possible – with luck, time, skill and perseverance. Furthermore in 2014, I had birded on 21 different days – theoretically leaving 10 extra days to get those additional 23 species. Importantly, in 2014 I had not visited the Okanogan and had no pelagic species. Perhaps optimistically those two trips could add more than 20 species. A pelagic trip was scheduled out of Westport for March 26 and I wanted Cindy to see the Okanogan for the first time, so those were great options. On the other hand, in 2014 I had a very successful multi-day trip to Eastern Washington mid-month that produced 43 species. It would be essential to repeat and even surpass that success – possibly with more than one visit.

Okanogan County – 146 Species Reported in March 2021 incl. 18 “specialties”

After this research and analysis, I concluded that 200 species should be easy, that 220 species was a good challenge but doable, and that even 230 species was possible if everything went well. Easy on paper – not so easy in the field, as my experience proved that not all does go well. AND there was another consideration. Cindy had to schedule knee surgery and late March looked like the best time for many reasons. I would gladly be the caregiver but that would mean no distant birding. We set the surgery for March 28th and I recalibrated my reasonable goal to 215 but still felt 200 would be easy – especially with that pelagic trip ahead.

The approach I used in each of the previously planned Big Month projects was to use the first day to chase the rarest of the species that had been seen on the last day of the previous month. For March 2022 that was easy, a WHOOPER SWAN had been reported daily in Monroe, Washington since February 8th. I had added it as both and an ABA Area Lifer already and that would be the first official stop. That was not the first birding for the month, however, as I notched 10 species on my routine morning walk with our black lab Chica around our home at Point Edwards. Maybe it was a good omen that a not always seen or heard VARIED THRUSH was among those 10. I added ROCK PIGEON and RED TAILED HAWK before arriving at the “Prison Farm Ponds” Stakeout for the swan. Its largely yellow bill made it easy to find among the 6 dozen TRUMPETER SWANS it had continue to hang with. Earlier planning had not expected anything this rare – a true mega-rarity – on the month list. I added another ten species there plus five including LINCOLN’S SPARROW at the nearby Crescent Lake Wildlife Management Area and then headed to also nearby Lord’s Lake hoping that the REDHEADS I had seen there in February remained. They had and I added some more water birds and was then up to 34 species. It was 9:45 a.m. on Day 1.

Whooper Swan Mega Rarity – Monroe
Redheads – Lords Lake – Monroe

Next on the “rarest hangover from February list” was the CINNAMON TEAL at the 212th Street ponds in Kent where with luck there would also be a rare for the area BLACK PHOEBE. Both proved easy to find. Not nearly as rare but often quite hard to find was a surprise AMERICAN BITTERN that I flushed as I circumnavigated the Easternmost pond. A WILSON’S SNIPE also flushed – the 10th new species for the day and of course Big March. I was now at 44 and counting.

Cinnamon Teal – 212th Street Ponds

It is always an “up” when targets are found, so I was pretty up at this point but my next target had often proved uncooperative and a “down”. Levee Pond in Fife has become the “go to” spot for GREEN HERON. I had seen one there in in each of the last several years including in January 2022, but I had also missed it in probably half of my attempts. No problem this time as it was perched on its favorite water pipe – visible as soon as I got out of my car. A BLACK CAPPED CHICKADEE scolded me as I approached for a photo – 46 species and counting.

Green Heron – Levee Pond

With the GREEN HERON, I was batting 1000 on 5 “chases’ an average that dropped when I failed to find a YELLOW BILLED LOON that had been reported at Discovery Park, a great Hotspot in Seattle, but one I hate to bird. I did add PILEATED WOODPECKER, RHINOCEROS AUKLET and 5 other species but not the prize. Next it was off to Green Lake in Seattle for another holdover rarity – possibly two. A flock of COMMON REDPOLLS often including a putative HOARY REDPOLL had been foraging around the same group of alders at the northeast end of the lake for weeks. When I arrived on the spot another birder was there, but he had not seen any REDPOLLS. Disappointed, I walked a bit further north and got lucky as the flock flew into trees overhead and even luckier as the HOARY was with them even though the group was smaller than usual. These were really great adds to the list. A GADWALL and a GREAT BLUE HERON brought the day list to 59 species. It was 3 p.m.

The sun was setting later and later as the year progressed, but in Washington, sundown in early march is still relatively early. There would be enough time to scope Puget Sound from the Public Fishing Pier in hometown Edmonds, scope some more on Sunset Avenue and then hit local Pine Ridge Park hoping to get lucky with a BARRED OWL. Eleven more species from the Pier and along Sunset including a not always found BLACK SCOTER. No owl at Pine Ridge Park but a few forest birds brought the final total for the day to 74 – all within 40 miles of home. An excellent start in good weather – not a sure thing ever especially in March. I figured I would get the BARRED OWL later but probably would not find a YELLOW BILLED LOON. Both had been on my target list in the initial plan for the month.

Day 1 had been south and Day 2 would head north. There were three holdover rarities to target but mostly species to check off for the month. The targets were a RUDDY TURNSTONE that had been seen the previous month on the spit at Tulalip Bay and the GYRFALCON and PRAIRIE FALCON that were still being seen intermittently in Skagit County. I had not tried for the RUDDY TURNSTONE earlier in the year and it had not been as regular as in years past, although very uncommon in Washington. I did not see it this day either but was able to add 7 new species for the month in the area. I then went to a stakeout in Arlington looking for a RUSTY BLACKBIRD. It had been hanging with a small flock of RED WINGED BLACKBIRDS that visited a feeder at a private residence. A small flock of birds were at the feeder and flew off just as I arrived. Had the RUSTY been with them? I never would know since they did not return as I waited maybe 30 minutes. I guess it was a bad day for RU birds as I failed to find either the RUDDY or the RUSTY, both on my “reasonable chance” list for the month. This was not a good start and the bad luck continued.

Black Bellied Plover – Tulalip Spit

I next headed to Wylie Slough in Skagit County hoping for some shorebirds and maybe a WOOD DUCK. On the way I found a large flock of SNOW GEESE. They are present in the thousands but not always in the same fields so possible to miss. I also found a couple of TUNDRA SWANS. There were 19 species at Wylie but zero shorebirds and no WOOD DUCKS, a NORTHERN SHOVELER the only new species for the month. Nearby on Dry Slough Road, there was a surprise, two BARN SWALLOWS, possibly birds that had over wintered as swallows were not yet returning from their migration south.

Before heading to the Samish Flats area to look for the falcons, I headed to Rosario Head/Beach where targets were BLACK OYSTERCATCHER and HARLEQUIN DUCK and maybe some “Rockpiper”. It was windy and cold and I felt lucky find one of each of the specific target – both distant and not photo ops – no Rockpipers at all. In fact the tide was fairly low and all the birds were distant. Scope views added COMMON MURRES and RED THROATED LOONS to the month list. Maybe there was something else, but just too far to tell.

I had seen both of the targeted falcons on my Falcon Sweep day on January 31st (See https://blairbirding.com/2022/02/04/slamming/) but found neither on this day although I fortunately added both PEREGRINE FALCON and MERLIN. Looking for the falcons, I visited both the East and West 90’s usual go to spots for SHORT EARED OWL. Not this year though as the fields are flooded and the voles, prey for the owls, were drowned. So no owl that day – and as it turned out, they would not be seen that month at least by me – a sure thing that proved not sure at all. The last stop in the area was at the Samish Day Use area – an overlook where scans of the bay below usually produce hundreds of birds. The wind was howling and the birds were not easily seen as the waves hid them and kept them far from shore. This is the best place relatively close to me to find WHITE WINGED SCOTERS and LONG TAILED DUCKS. The SCOTERS were there but at best I had a maybe LONG TAILED DUCK not countable. I picked up a YELLOW RUMPED WARBLER at my final stop – back home at the Edmonds Marsh.

As it turned out the RUDDY TURNSTONE was not seen by anyone in March. There were scattered birder-to-birder reports of the GYRFALCON being seen but it is a sensitive species on Ebird so no details. The PRAIRIE FALCON was seen off and on in the same areas I had looked. Just bad timing and unfortunately I never found one in possible good places in Eastern Washington on trips later. SHORT EARED OWL sightings in March were regular on San Juan Island and sporadic elsewhere. I would definitely have lost the bet, but of the 43 times I have seen SHORT EARED OWLS in Washington, none have been in March. Day 2 added twenty two new species for the month – total now at 96 – but 6 misses for the day and pretty crappy weather – left me feeling pretty crappy as well. The next day Cindy and I would be heading to Eastern Washington – particularly Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan Counties. There was a long target list.

Merlin – Edison, WA
Rough Legged Hawk – Samish Flats
Peregrine Falcon – Samish Flats

Okay, okay – “the Okanogan” is beautiful in Winter. And yes Cindy enjoyed her first trip to the area – the snowy hills, solitude, expansive snow covered fields and traffic-less roads. The weather was clear and not too cold – and actually that was a problem. I have not visited the area in March. Each of the past ten years I have been there in December or January or February. It has been either cold or very cold and the backroads have been covered with snow. Not too much to prevent passage but enough to cover the gravel and present a complete “empty white scape” – threatening at first glance to those of us who live not just in developed areas but in areas where snowfall is infrequent and typically rained away in a few days. But as all wheel drive handles the roads safely and easily, we adjust and there is an overwhelming peacefulness that remains. Last year as part of a Big February when I visited the area, there were several hours of travel on snow covered dirt or gravel roads when I never saw another human or another vehicle. Just birds.

So much for the good part of the trip, the bad parts were pretty bad, starting with the realization about 30 miles from our Edmonds start that I had left my camera on the dining room table. I can blame that on preparing for travel for two instead of alone as usual, but that would be a poor excuse at best. If it were not going to be such a long trip, anyhow, I might have turned back to retrieve it. If I had maybe it would have changed our luck/experience. Or maybe it was just a difference between visiting the area in March and visiting earlier. There were many critical or at least possible targets for the visit: SNOWY, PYGMY and NORTHERN SAW WHET OWLS, SHARP TAILED GROUSE, CHUKAR, GRAY PARTRIDGE, GOLDEN EAGLE, BOHEMIAN WAXWING, CLARK’S NUTCRACKER, WILD TURKEY, CANYON WREN, RED and WHITE WINGED CROSSBILLS, SNOW BUNTING, LAPLAND LONGSPUR, GRAY JAY, NORTHERN SHRIKE, TREE SPARROW, and less likely but possible DUSKY GROUSE, AMERICAN THREE TOED WOODPECKER, GRAY CROWNED ROSY FINCH and PINE GROSBEAK. In my initial planning, I counted on at least 12 of these species, and yes with pictures of most of them. Additionally there were at least another 15 or so species that were regular and should be found on this trip but no big deal if they were missed as they were sure things later on other Eastern Washington trips. This trip should produce at least 25 new species for March and with luck maybe 30.

Well, it was not to be. Before getting to the Okanogan the trip usually includes many miles of driving through the vast snow covered flat fields on the Waterville Plateau. On past trips, there were many thousand HORNED LARKS, dozens if not hundreds of SNOW BUNTINGS, usually some GRAY PARTRIDGE and SNOWY OWLS, often LAPLAND LONGSPURS and possibly GYRFALCONS. TREE SPARROWS were possible at a couple of woodlots. Most roads would be easily passable over plowed snow perhaps 4 to 6 inches deep. This time, most roads and many fields were entirely free of snow. We flushed hundreds of HORNED LARKS and saw a few COMMON RAVENS but that was all. The previously reported SNOWY OWLS were gone – not a good start.

Bridgeport State Park comes after the Waterville Plateau and is a go to spot for NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL. In some years past there have been multiple owls roosting and buried in the trees scattered through the park. This year reports were of single owls or none. But there were consistent reports of a flock of BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS in the poplars along the entrance road. Cindy was the first to spot birds in those trees. We stopped and readily found several groups of the WAXWINGS maybe as many as 60 in all. No camera, so no pictures but they are so special I am including one from a trip in years past. Maybe our luck was turning.

Bohemian Waxwing

The best way to find a NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL in the park is to find a camper there who knows which tree(s) they are roosting in. The second best way is to find some “white wash” (owl poop) on the ground below a tree. There were no campers and we found no whitewash – so now owl. WAXWINGS aside, the luck was still flowing against us. We carried on north and picked up a SAY’S PHOEBE in Brewster. This would be a regular species in Eastern Washington in March so not a big deal, but especially given the rest of the day, it was nice to get something new. I am including a photo of one species missed, the NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL. It is a favorite photo and it’s my blog so I get to do things like this.

Northern Saw Whet Owl – January 2017 and definitely NOT March 2022

One of my go to places in Okanogan County is the 20+ miles of Cameron Lake Road. It is another place where SNOW BUNTINGS and GRAY PARTRIDGE have been regular in the past and where other area specialties are always possible. It is also a place where many years ago I had two flat tires, something I did not tell Cindy until we had finished the travel. As before, the road was almost completely clear of snow, some fields were bare and the area was almost birdless. We added a WESTERN MEADOWLARK and NOTHING ELSE!!! It was nearing 3:00 p.m. and we had added a grand total of only 4 new species only one of which was on the specialty target list and we had missed at least 5 or 6.

There was only enough time to continue north taking the Riverside Cutoff Road to the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area. I have usually had CANYON WREN and GOLDEN EAGLE on the Cutoff Road with the possibility of SHARP TAILED GROUSE at Scotch Creek. It would then be on to Conconully where WILD TURKEYS were certain, a BLUE JAY had recently been reported, where I have had CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS and where other Eastern Washington birds were possible. I have also had GRAY PARTRIDGE and RING NECKED PHEASANT on farms on the way to Scotch Creek. Bad luck continued. There were no GOLDEN EAGLES or CANYON WRENS on the Cutoff Road, no pheasants or partridge in the farm fields on the way to Scotch Creek and there was very little snow at Scotch Creek, so even if SHARP TAILED GROUSE were there, they would be on the ground and essentially invisible instead of feeding atop the water birch and thus easy to see.

On the way in to Conconully we found some CALIFORNIA QUAIL, a WESTERN BLUEBIRD and some BLACK BILLED MAGPIES and in Conconully itself we finally located the WILD TURKEYS but the BLUE JAY was not at the feeder where it had been a couple of days earlier. Disappointed, we headed south to Omak where we would be staying for two nights with a side trip along Salmon Creek Road where we found some calling CASSIN”S FINCHES but nothing else. Thus ended a very discouraging day 3 of Big March. Nine new species for the month but only the BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS were truly special targets for the trip – and way too many misses. On the bright side, there were no flat tires and there was always tomorrow – which would take us to the Okanogan Highlands – one of the prettiest areas in Washington – and hopefully some good birds.

We got off to a good start on March 4th at Fancher Road. There is a cattle ranch there with a big open grazing field next to a rocky hillside. I first became aware of it as a great spot for CHUKAR IN 2018 when I had 35 CHUKAR there. That was 15 more than I had seen at one time anywhere previously. The next year I returned and had at least 135 CHUKAR there. Interestingly others have visited the same spot and had large numbers or just a single CHUKAR or none. This would be a good visit as we had at least 50. We moved on to Siwash Creek Road. I had discovered SHARP TAILED GROUSE there in 2020. I am sure there were reports from there earlier, but my report put it on the map for many birders and there were several observations from February 2022. We carefully checked all the water birch thickets for well over an hour, also keeping an eye out for NORTHERN PYGMY OWL which is often seen there. Once again there was less snow than usual so maybe the grouse were not up high feeding on the catkins. In any event – no grouse and no owls. We did find all three Washington species of nuthatch – RED BREASTED, WHITE BREASTED and PYGMY and also RED CROSSBILLS and MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES. We did not find any WHITE WINGED CROSSBILLS – another bad miss.

As per earlier comments, there was significantly less snow than I had seen in the past. The temperature had been below freezing the night before, but it warmed into the mid to upper 40’s and the ice in the roads was turning to mud – not my favorite. There was some snow as we headed up to the Havillah Sno-Park. I have had GREAT GRAY OWL, NORTHERN PYGMY OWL and AMERICAN THREE TOED WOODPECKER there. This visit was eerily quiet – just a HAIRY WOODPECKER and some finches. Heading back to Havillah Road we did add a CLARK’S NUTCRACKER and a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. We drove around the Okanogan Highlands for another few hours – finding nothing of note and nothing new. Pretty? Yes, but also pretty birdless.

We left the Highlands returning to Tonasket and then headed back to the Riverside Cutoff Road hoping for species missed the previous afternoon. We were only partially successful finding a singing CANYON WREN just where it was supposed to be on one of the cliffs. Still no GOLDEN EAGLE and no GRAY PARTRIDGE or even a RING NECKED PHEASANT on Conconully Road. Again in poor spirits – at least birding wise – we returned to Omak and had a nice dinner. Altogether we had added 10 species for the day/month to get to 115. The CANYON WREN, CLARK’S NUTCRACKER, RED CROSSBILL, and CHUKAR were on the second tier of the specialties list. I would try again the next morning alone with Cindy catching up on some sleep and then we would be heading home.

On the morning of March 5th I returned to Siwash Creek Road determined to find a SHARP TAILED GROUSE and/or a NORTHERN PYGMY OWL and/or some CROSSBILLS with white wings. Heading north on Highway 97 just south of Tonasket at 6:30 a.m. a bird perched on a telephone wire caught my eye. I did a quick U-turn (there was no traffic) and what might have been a KESTREL from initial reaction turned out to be a NORTHERN SHRIKE – high on my wants list for the trip. Unfortunately despite another hour plus on Siwash Creek Road – no grouse or owls. The timing was just bad. Marcus Roenig and Heather Ballash did find two SHARP TAILED GROUSE on Siwash Creek Road on March 12th – both on the ground and not in the trees. There were no other March reports for this species. A NORTHERN PYGMY OWL was found by others at the Havillah Sno-Park but that was it. There was also just a single report of a single SNOW BUNTING near Oroville late in March. As I said just bad timing.

We left Omak and headed home. At a stop at the Monse Bridge on the Okanogan River we added CANVASBACK for the month and then at the Entiat Lake Overview, we added RUDDY DUCK. Both would be easy to find later elsewhere, but with our specialty count so low, any new species was appreciated.

There would be one more stop on the way home. LESSER GOLDFINCHES were being seen regularly at Debbie Sutherland’s feeder in Cashmere. I figured out the address and made an unannounced visit. Debbie was out birding elsewhere, but husband Steve and son Ryan were home and welcomed us in. It did not take long to see 5 LESSER GOLDFINCHES join maybe 10 AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES – also new for the month. We spent at least an hour visiting with Ryan and Steve – frankly the highlight of our trip. Despite severe challenges from Muscular Dystrophy, Ryan is an excellent birder, bright, knowledgeable, personable and articulate and Steve is way beyond supportive of Ryan and very fun as well. He, Ryan and Debbie have traveled broadly birding along the way and collecting great stories. The LESSER GOLDFINCH was a much welcomed addition to the trip and month list. The visit with Steve and Ryan was an upper, but the overhang from the trip was a downer.

We spent the night in Leavenworth with a fun dinner at the Wildflour Restaurant near Lake Wenatchee. The next morning we looked for WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER at The Sleeping Lady Resort and the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. I have had the woodpecker at both places but more often have failed to find one there – today it would be the latter – another miss. We added a DOWNY WOODPECKER for the month and headed home. On the way back I added WOOD DUCK and BROWN CREEPER at parks near home.

Quantitatively things did not look so bad. We had added 26 new species for the trip and the total of 123 species seemed proportionately good for just 6 days. But there had been too many misses, which added to some misses earlier, was troubling. The low hanging fruit was largely taken and it would get harder to add bunches of birds going forward. Also although there were 26 days remaining in the month, the four at the end would most likely not be available for birding. Still I knew new species would be arriving and I had not yet been to Clark County or to the Coast or to Walla Walla and to the Shrub Steppe Sage habitat. Time to end this part of the Blog – somewhat behind schedule but with a lot of days left. (To be continued.)

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